On Fri., Feb. 27, Oak Park and River Forest High School Principal Nate Rouse hosted the first in a series of conversations about racial equity in the school’s Little Theatre to celebrate the conclusion of Black History Month. Roughly 350 students and staff who identify as Black participated in the forum, which included a discussion by a panel of Black OPRF students and staff. Many in the audience also shared their own experiences as Black youth and adults at OPRF and in the larger school community, and discussed ways in which they can better support each other and efforts to create positive change.
The forum used a racial affinity group model to engage participants in a deeper conversation around the national theme “Black Lives Matter.” This event, which was planned by the school without a review by the Board of Education, was part of OPRF’s ongoing efforts to look at issues of racial equity in the high school, the school community and around the country. Racial affinity groups are often used in learning communities to help facilitate positive identity exploration and provide people with similar experiences a space in which to pose questions and process topics. According to Principal Rouse, the conversation was an opportunity for students who identify as Black to speak openly, honestly, and productively. “I believe that the discussion will help us as a school begin talking about race in a deeper and more meaningful way than ever before—and most important, produce change,” Mr. Rouse said. One of the goals of the district’s strategic plan is to look at ways it can address disproportionate student outcomes that are predictable by race.
Panelists and audience members talked about their positive experiences coming to OPRF from schools that were either nearly all White or all Black, the disproportionately low numbers of Black students in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and ways to address disparities in the discipline system. Superintendent Dr. Steven Isoye, who attended the event, noted, “This was a very positive conversation where our most disenfranchised students were able to give voice to their experiences and hopes for the future.”
On a final note, some students and parents expressed confusion and concern about the event being for Black students only. Information about the event lacked clarity about this aspect of the conversation, and the high school is committed to improving communications in the future. Further conversations among and across other racial affinity groups shall take place at the high school in the coming months and into next year.
Principal Nate Rouse welcomes students and staff to a Black Lives Matter discussion. Photo credit: Tia Marr